VAN BUREN, Maine — Coming up with enough players to field a baseball team has been a challenge for the Van Buren Crusaders in recent years.
In both 2005 and 2006 the team played full schedules with just the minimum nine players — and in 2006 the “Iron 9” advanced all the way to the Eastern Maine Class D championship game.
In 2009, a paucity of players led the school to opt not to field a varsity team.
This year Van Buren — boasting a high school enrollment of approximately 110 and a popular tennis program that attracts many of its student-athletes each spring — faced an uncertain future with both its baseball and softball teams.
The solution, ultimately, was a merger of sorts.
“We didn’t have enough girls for the softball team,” said Van Buren athletic administrator Sue Parent, “and boys can’t play softball but girls can play baseball, so three of the girls chose to play on the baseball team.”
And so it was that when Van Buren opened its baseball season at Wisdom of Saint Agatha on Tuesday, senior Naomi Maldonado, sophomore Kayla Durette and freshman Amanda Sytulek joined 11 boys on coach Jay Edgecomb’s club — with Maldonado hitting a double and a single in the Crusaders’ 13-3 loss.
“We were in the process of deciding if 11 players were enough to have a baseball team awhile back, and the girls were deciding if they would have enough to have a softball team,” said Edgecomb. “The softball coach [John Parent] and I were talking about it one night, and he finally said, ‘We’ve just got to stop our [softball] season.’
“We have a very young team with only two or three experienced players returning, and I said if any of the girls wanted to join my team, they were welcome.”
For Maldonado, who played softball for Van Buren as a freshman and then last spring as a junior on the Crusaders’ 0-14 team, it was an easy decision.
“I wanted to play, I was pretty disappointed when they said there wasn’t going to be a softball team,” said Maldonado, who along with Durette and Sytulek also were members of the Van Buren girls’ basketball team that reached the Eastern Maine Class D semifinals last winter.
“I thought it was a good opportunity. I didn’t have to think long about doing it at all.”
For veteran baseball players like Devin Clavette, a catcher-first baseman for the Crusaders, having the three girls join the roster alleviated fears he had about a repeat of his freshman year at Van Buren when there was no baseball team.
“At the beginning of the season I was a little bit concerned because a couple of years before we didn’t have a team,” he said. “It’s good that we’re able to play this year.”
Maldonado, Durette and Sytulek — whose twin brother Justin is now a baseball teammate — worked out with the baseball team for about two weeks during preseason.
“It didn’t bother me at all,” said Clavette. “They’re doing the same things the boys are doing, so there is no difference. In practice they do just as well if not better then some of the boys on the team.”
Maldonado, a pitcher on the softball team last spring, worked out in the infield for the Crusaders this preseason, while Sytulek could play in the outfield or pitch and Durrette will likely contribute in a utility role.
“The ball’s a lot smaller and the bats are a little heavier,” said Maldonado, who plans to study athletic training at the University of Maine at Presque Isle beginning this fall. “That’s about it, and there’s more running to do on the bases and the balls go a little quicker.
“I’m having fun at it.”
Edgecomb said nothing out of the ordinary has come out of this fairly unique situation — the practice of girls playing on boys soccer teams has not been uncommon at smaller high schools in the state and, coincidentally, a similar set of circumstances is playing out on the middle-school baseball team in Van Buren this spring.
“We had one discussion about fraternization,” said Edgecomb, whose team hopes to improve on last year’s 5-9 finish. “I told them we’re a baseball team, and I expect everybody to act like a baseball team.
“But there really hasn’t been any issues. The boys have accepted the girls on the team, and the only difference is they change in a different locker room.”